On the Net, Love Really Is Blind
By JOYCE COHEN
EVERYONE has heard those amazing stories of online love - the intimate correspondence, the heart-pounding first meeting, the walk down the aisle - all supporting the notion that it can happen.
Just don't expect it to.
The reality, for those seduced by the dream of finding the perfect mate on the Internet, is that the success stories are the rare and serendipitous exceptions. When it comes to the search for lasting love, psychologists are finding that chat rooms, message boards and especially online dating services may have built-in mechanisms that make any offscreen romance very likely to fail.
The primary difficulty with the process of meeting online, according to some psychologists, is that there is little similarity between a disembodied e-mail consciousness and a real-life encounter. As a result, it is impossible to tell how two people, no matter how much they like each other in a computer context, will get along in the real world.
But the bigger problem is that online correspondence makes people feel they have a strong connection. The typical pattern is one of e-mail exchanges that draw the cybersuitors into a flurry of correspondence, an epistolary romance featuring an enormous emotional intensity that fizzles abruptly upon the first meeting.
"Most people you encounter, online or off, are those you will not be interested in," said Dr. Joseph Walther, an associate professor of communication, social psychology and information technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who studies online relationships. "What's different about the Internet is surprise," surprise at how feelings blossom so quickly, he said. "The medium sucks you in."Joe Teig, 42, of Manhattan knows how hard it is to find lasting love. For three years, he has been giving fate a helping hand by scouring two of the Web's biggest dating sites, match.com and matchmaker.com. As he has gained experience with the process, he has lowered his expectations.
"Early on, I would get all excited; I would be meeting a girl," said Mr. Teig, who lives on the Upper West Side. "Now, it's like an appointment."He estimated that he has contacted "hundreds" of women through the Internet. Only about a third of the women he contacts write back. He ends up speaking on the phone with about a third of those, and meets perhaps three- quarters of those.
All told, he said he has had about 100 meetings, about 10 of which led to a second date. Five relationships lasted several weeks but eventually faded. Still, he remains hopeful.
"I've invested so much time and energy because it is important to me, not because my mom wants wallet-sized photos of her grandchildren," said Mr. Teig, who works as a paralegal and pursues singing and acting jobs on the side. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be subjecting myself to hundreds of doltish profiles about candlelight and fine dining and walks on the beach."What did he learn? "You can't tell anything until you meet," he said. Though it would seem that someone likable online would be likable offline, Mr. Teig found no connection. "It's not looks," he said. "It's more of a vibe."
Social psychologists have already figured that out. "What you lose with text is the dynamic of the behavior," said Dr. Jon E. Grahe of Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill. Words are largely irrelevant in determining rapport, he said. Nonverbal communication is what counts. "With nonverbals, there's motion and activity."
He conducted a study in which 100 people were paired off in opposite-sex couples and given a simple task to perform. Afterward, the participants rated the rapport they developed during their conversation. Dr. Grahe then had observers try to determine the rapport between the participants either by reading a transcript of their conversations, by listening to an audiotape or by watching a videotape with no sound.
The observers most accurately assessed the rapport between the couples by viewing the soundless videotape. They least accurately assessed the rapport by reading a transcript. In short, the nonverbal communication was more telling than a written form of what they had actually said.
"You can't hear proximity," Dr. Grahe said, referring to the deficiencies of a written conversation, like an e-mail message. Nor can you perceive things like eye contact, gestures, smiles and smirks. "Words are ambiguous out of context," he added.
Rita Kane found that out when she signed up with SocialNet.com after separating from her husband nearly a year ago.
"E-mail is completely devoid of all the nuances that make understanding transcend words," said Ms. Kane, of Orlando, Fla. "Silence itself has meaning in real life, and that's also missing."
"I have met some people I have thoroughly enjoyed communicating with," said Ms. Kane, 47, who recently reconciled with her husband. "Upon meeting in person, I was disappointed each time."Statistics from one online dating site are hardly encouraging to would-be online suitors. Match.com said it had enrolled five million members in its six-year history, with 1,100 confirmed marriages (and 45 babies) resulting. That figures out to about one in 2,270 members who have met and married through the site, or 0.045 percent.
Another dating site, uDate.com, has been running for a year. According to a company spokesman, the site has had 1.2 million members with 75 confirmed marriages among them.
Of course, it may not be fair to use marriage as the measure of a happy outcome. Match.com says that 520,000 people have left the service "after finding the relationship they were seeking," but there is no way to verify that number. And the service has no figures on how many people returned after being dumped, or how many suffered from divorces or broken engagements.
"I would ask, `What yields better results?' " said Cindy Hennessy, president of match.com. "Going to the grocery store or the bookstore at peak hour results in exactly zero meetings. People simply don't know where to go to meet."Storm King, a doctoral student at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif., said online romances create a false intimacy among couples.
"Text-based relationships are very deceptive," Mr. King said. "People know only the good stuff, and none of the bad. The missing pieces are filled in based on hope, not on reality."
Mr. King has an example from his own life. In 1993, while living in Hilo, Hawaii, he met a woman from Michigan through an online bulletin board. Three weeks later, he paid for her to fly out to meet him.
"She wore heavy eye mascara, and I was a West Coast hippie," Mr. King said. "I don't date women who wear mascara." Their relationship ended after she returned to Michigan.
A week later, he met his wife, Nancy, standing in line at the post office. "It was just before Valentine's Day," he said. "It was a long line."
Most people meeting online start by emphasizing their good points, said Dr. Walther at Rensselaer.
"You get the sensitivity and thoughtfulness," he said. "You don't get the waistline, hairline, fidgets, twitches and interruptions. Our study showed if people are communicating with someone they believe to be attractive, they edit and rewrite more than if they don't care whether they are impressing them."
The correspondence becomes a kind of upward spiral - a "feedback loop of flattering, desirable messages that get intensified through the channel," he said.
"If you meet spontaneously," Dr. Walther continued, "you build your impression from real data, not from an idealized basis. It is nearly impossible for people to live up to such an artificially high, idealized range of expectations."Mr. Teig admits that he has found himself getting pulled in. "It's a trap," he said. "Your imagination fills in the blanks with exactly what you want. You don't learn more with more rounds of writing. All you do is invest more emotional energy, for which there is no payoff."
Another claim of some dating services is that online suitors tend to be more forgiving of small flaws. Trish McDermott, Match.com's vice president for romance, said that members have told her "they feel a friendship or kinship" from meeting on the site, and "they are less likely or willing to reject someone based on minor physical imperfection."
Psychologists don't buy it. In fact, psychologists say, online dating can make people less forgiving, as they are fostered by a kid-in-a-candy-store effect that makes them more willing to bail out of something promising.
"People will reject people they would ordinarily be O.K. with if they met them at a party," said Dr. Stanley Woll, a psychology professor at California State University in Fullerton, who has studied dating services for 20 years. "Here, there is always somebody down the line who is better."Mr. Teig said he has fallen victim to that, and worries that the illusion of opportunity - those limitless relationships waiting in the wings - makes him too hasty to flee.
"You may have an O.K. date, and rather than invest the energy that you might otherwise, there's a new person writing you a note," he said. "Maybe she'll be better. I have found myself thinking: She was kind of nice, but she's not my only option. I can go back to the bin. It benefits the person you haven't met. It's flawed logic, but it has happened to me."Dr. Woll also questions whether many people using dating services are promising candidates for long-term relationships. There is no way of gauging whether people are looking for a lifetime mate, a one-night stand, a free dinner or something to do on Saturday. These services are so low-cost and user-friendly that it's effortless to sign on.
In favor of the Internet, Mr. King said, "it is set up to bypass a lot of social norms."
"In real life," he said, "you don't talk to strangers. Online, you are encouraged to talk to strangers. The Internet lets people have relationships they could not have any other way."
And he doesn't deny there are some success stories of couples who met online - just as there are some success stories of couples who met at the post office.